Death in the Clouds (Agatha Christie)

  • First published: USA: Dodd Mead, March 1935, as Death in the Air; UK: Collins, July 1935

My review

An ingenious little puzzle, well characterised and amusing, and which can be said to inaugurate Christie’s classic period. Mme. Giselle, a moneylender and one of Christie’s power-hungry women, is poisoned with boomslang venom apparently fired from a blowpipe onboard the noonday flight from Paris to Croydon; a cunning parody of those writers like Edgar Wallace who concoct sensationally silly murders. While she parodies, she also sets a most intriguing puzzle, for the crime was committed before ten people, none of whom saw a thing. Although Poirot is on board, he sleeps through the murder, and waits until reaching terra firma before helping the British and French police in their inquiries. The three principal clues are excellent, and the solution is an ingenious variation on Chesterton‘s The Queer Feet and The Arrow of Heaven.

Blurb (UK)

Out of the blue of a September sky the great cross-Channel air-liner Prometheus appeared true to time and circled round gracefully to make a perfect landing at Croydon.  A plain-clothes inspector accompanied by a uniformed policeman came hurriedly across the aerodrome and climbed into the plane.  “Will you please follow me, ladies and gentlemen?”  The disconcerted passengers were escorted, not into the usual Customs department, but into a small private room—for high over the Channel, death, quick and mysterious, had struck.  The investigation had begun into what was to prove one of Hercule Poirot’s most baffling mysteries.  Once again we marvel at the wonderful deductive powers of the little Belgian, perhaps the favourite character in present-day detective fiction.

Blurb (US)

The murder was discovered just before the air liner was due to land at Croydon.  Madame Giselle, whose shrewdness as a discreet money-lender had gained her a fortune, slumped over in her seat.  Death had unquestionably taken place while high in the air and beyond a doubt the murderer was one of the thirteen occupants of the plane.  There was no question of accident.  The weapon lay on the cabin floor – a small thorn such as is used by South American Indians in a blowgun.

“Preposterous!” was Inspector Japp’s reaction.  Blowpipes and obscure poisons were all very well for fiction thrillers, but this was 1935 at Croydon Aerodrome.  And yet

“Here is the dart and it seems to have worked.”

“That,” said Hercule Poirot, “is what gives one so furiously to think.”

Of all the diabolically ingenious crimes that Agatha Christie has ever conceived, Death in the Air ranks among the very cleverest.  It is scrupulously fair and the reader is given every clue that Poirot possesses, but not one in a thousand will guess the solution.  Dominated by the incomparable Poirot, it is a brilliant mixture of subtle characterization, deft humour and gripping suspense which will inevitably sweep it to first place in the season’s mysteries.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Torquemada, 30th June 1935): My admiration for Mrs. Christie is such that with every new book of hers I strain every mental nerve to prove that she has failed, at last, to hypnotise me.  On finishing Death in the Clouds, I found that she had succeeded even more triumphantly than usual.  Her latest murder is a “close” crime, even more “close” than the Orient Express one; for possible suspects are, or appear to be, limited to the few passengers in the rear car of a passenger plane.  I hope that some readers of this baffling case will foresee at least the false dénouement.  I did not even do that.  Agatha Christie has recently developed two further tricks: one is, as of the juggler who keeps on almost dropping things, to leave a clue hanging out for several chapters, apparently unremarked by her little detective though seized on by us, and then to tuck it back again as unimportant.  Another is to give us some, but by no means all, of the hidden thoughts of her characters.  We readers must guard against these new dexterities.  As for Poirot, it is only to him and to Cleopatra that a certain remark about age and custom is strictly applicable.  But might not Inspector Japp be allowed to mellow a little, with the years, beyond the moron stage?

The Times (2nd July 1935): A no less ingenious plot [than that of Richard Hull’s Keep It Quiet] is that of Death in the Clouds.  Mrs. Agatha Christie has evolved for herself a method which, however often employed, never loses its originality: she places her suspects in a confined space—a railway coach or an aeroplane—from which there is no escape for them and into which no intruder can break.  We have already seen M. Poirot—that fortune or unfortunate gentleman who cannot travel without rubbing shoulders with murderers—grappling with mysteries in the Blue Train and on the Orient Express: now he finds himself involved, for a moment even as a suspect, in a crime committed between le Bourget and Croydon.  Needless to say he clears himself and runs the true criminal down, but only after the reader has been erroneously persuaded of the guilt of almost all the other passengers.

Times Literary Supplement (4th July 1935): When the air-liner Prometheus reached Croydon from Paris the stewards had just found that Mme. Giselle, on Seat Two in the rear car, was dead.  A tiny “native” thorn had entered her neck.  (The author misuses “native” for “extremely foreign” about fifty times.)  On the thorn was poison of a boom-slang, a South African snake.  A wasp had buzzed about the car and attracted all eyes a little earlier and a blowpipe was found behind Seat Nine.  In Seat Nine Hercule Poirot had dozed all the way, for the great Belgian detective, deservedly popular among readers of previous novels, always found air travel upset his stomach.  Who had done it?  The jury evidently thought Poirot had.  Mme. Giselle was a rich moneylender; she knew far too much of other people’s secrets.  Her heiress was a long-disappeared daughter.  So any of the nine other passengers and two stewards could be suspected.  And all of them were, including Clancy, the writer of detective stories, whom the author evidently enjoys making absurd.  It will be a very acute reader who does not receive a complete surprise at the end.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 27th July 1935): OLD FAVOURITES

It would be strange, and indeed rather alarming, if at this time of day one found something to criticise in the productions of Mrs. Christie or Mr. Mason.  They have both achieved an apparently effortless mastery over the material they manipulate, and they show no disposition for experiments in technique.  They seem in perfect equilibrium with themselves and with their public.  The only rôle left to a reviewer is that of compère, or the B.B.C. announcer who introduces “A.J. Alan” at the microphone.  But what a difference there is in their art!  Mrs. Christie intent on her pattern, Mr. Mason splashing on the colour.

In their latest works even Mr. Mason’s title points the contrast.  His characters could never be chessmen; their movements are far too erratic.  Whereas the problems that Poirot tackles are constructed on exactly the same basis as those in chess, and depend for their solution on a close study of timing and position.  In Death in the Clouds you get a murder in three moves.  There are nine pieces on the board, all threatening mate—videlicet murder—in one move, but you may be sure Mrs. Christie would never permit a solution as simple as that.  The board is the air-liner Prometheus flying from Paris to London, the Black King is represented by a female moneylender, and the White pieces, needless to say, all stand to gain by her demise.  A plan of the board is provided on the frontispiece, on which one can see that the Hon. Venetia Kerr threatens Madame Giselle on the long diagonal, Mr. Clancy as a pawn en passant, and Poirot himself by a knight’s move.  But Poirot is a black piece, ever on the side of the doomed Black King.  Does anyone believe that Mrs. Christie will yet construct a problem in which Poirot is a white piece?  That would indeed imply a sacrificial combination, a Philidor’s Legacy!

Chicago Daily Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 23rd March 1935, 90w): Entertaining, swift, plausible to a degree, but pretty hard to swallow at the latter end.

Sat R of Lit (23rd March 1935, 50w): Very good.

Books (Will Cuppy, 24th March 1935, 260w): Where the plot is a bit too thick, you can take it with a smile.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 24th March 1935, 270w): A crime puzzle of the first quality; and a mighty entertaining story besides.

John o’ London’s (Edward Shanks): On the exploits of Mr. Poirot congratulations have ceased to be necessary.

Daily Herald: For thrills there’s no one to beat Agatha Christie.

Evening News: One of the best of the Poirot murder investigations.

Bystander: The gallant little Belgian in his best form.  He is one of the very few modern detectives whose character does not pall and whose mannerisms do not annoy.